Wednesday, March 12, 2014

That Time of Year: Cassoulet at Kesslers 2014

It has become one of our favorite traditions of the year, a celebration of friendship and feasting built around one of the most sumptuous and satisfying dishes:  Cassoulet at the Kesslers 2014.

For several years now Lou and BettyLu have graciously hosted a cassoulet dinner as winter begins to wane.  BettyLu begins her preparations months ahead, planning and sourcing and preparing all the elements for the cassoulet and composing her much-coveted invite list to orchestrate a traditional evening of fine dining.  Lou also begins mulling over his wine choices from the well-stocked wine cellar, the envy and source of pleasure of many of his friends.

For 2014, we were lucky enough to be invited to the final of three cassoulet dinners. Arriving from Portland we were happy to see the emergence of spring in full blossom and bloom in California Wine Country, with the late-but-appreciated yellow mustard of Napa and the snowy-white and pretty-in-pink trees lining the streets in showy array.

In keeping with the seasonal explosion, Lou had selected a handsome array of aperitif wines to go with the delicious appetizers---duck liver pate on toast, limey scallop ceviche in crispy wonton cups, Dungeness spring rolls in rice paper, stir-fried shrimp on endive leaf, crackly home-made herbed breadsticks---and we sipped our way through them all.

First up was the delicate, almond-nutty Pieropan La Rocca Soave 2010, understated, soft, flexible with the foods; not as taut and structured as I’ve had from La Rocca in the past, but quietly delicious.

As the conversation got livelier, so did the wine as I segued to the Pichler Riesling Loibner Steinertal Smaragd 2007 from the Wachau in Austria.  Silky-smooth, with the fatness of smaragd almost disguising the stony acidity, refreshing, bracing in the mouth, and a perfect companion to the lime and scallop ceviche!

Next was a wine I couldn’t resist, a surprise from Lou’s cellar, and a wine that lit up the eyes of Steve Edmunds: Eric Texier’s Cotes-du-Rhone Brezeme Roussanne 2000.  Would it hold?  Yes, it would.  The high aromatics of youth were toned down a bit, of course, but the trade was a ripe fleshiness, a juicy, peachy-floral character with a bit of melon muskiness.  I love Roussanne, and of the Rhone triumvirate I much prefer it over Marsanne and Viognier,  although the three are usually best when blended.   This one stands just fine on its own and it holds its age quite nicely; it was a lovely surprise having a fully matured and not at all tired Roussanne from Eric.

The Chenin Blanc du jour was Huet Vouvray Le Mont Demi-Sec 2002, wondering if it had avoided the deadly plague of premox.  It was drinkable, but not all that lively and without the electricity that Huet usually brings.  Plenty of acidity, of course, but lacking a succulence of fruit and that pleasing contrast of sweet-sour that the demi-sec does so well.

Finally, one of Lou’s recent discoveries from Southern Oregon.  A biodynamic wine,  no less, complete with arcane symbols on the label (and now with the hubbub of True Detective symbology all the craze one looks closer, more intently, at those symbols. Heh-heh), the 2012 Cow Horn Spiral 36 white blend from the Applegate Valley in Oregon.  Whoo! Lively florality, waxy and reeking of lily of the valley, plush fruit, touch of spice---a really gorgeous blend of Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne, voluptuous, dry but fat,  Lime citrus, peach, but also a distinct honeyed note.  A hit; a palpable hit!

Palate prepared, we went to table.  This year, a slight change: having gone heavy-up on the passed apps, BettyLu opted to go directly into the cassoulet rather than a first course.  No one complained because we got to the cassoulet quicker: and, after all, that was the ostensible reason for the get-together.  It was glorious, and many thought the best we’d had thus far. 

Glistening sausages, tender confit of duck and firm, chewy but not tough beans with perfect texture (BettyLu had elected to use a new bean this year from southern Mexico by way of Rancho Gordo, and they were exceptional!)  The texture was lovely, and the concentrated intensity of the dish was amazing (BL had long-simmered some of the liquid to a dense reduction and added it back to get to that perfect point). 

A simple side dish of julienned carrots---what more do you need with cassoulet?---with three bottles of Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape 1998, and a reverent almost-silence ensued, marred only by the slurp and suck of dish and glass.  The cassoulet was so good and quickly gone I forgot to take a picture of it.  Wouldn't have done it justice anyhow.

The Beaucastel was shy and bashful at first, despite having been opened hours earlier, and hesitant to reveal all its charms of aromatic complexity and black-fruit density, and it kept emerging until it was all gone.  It was simply elegant with the cassoulet, stepping up admirably when called on, handling the richness, the salt, the fat.

With a thirsty crowd, abetted by Steve Edmund’s incessant demands for even more red wine, Lou went back to the cellar and emerged with another Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the estimable 2001 Le Vieux Donjon.  Altogether different; lush, and blowsy and fruit-drenched, with some Rhone funk-spice (technical term) that made it indulgent, although I think the tightwound nerviness of the Beaucastel was better with the cassoulet.

For the final course we had two remarkable cheeses---Txiki, a raw sheep’s milk from Baringer Ranch in Marshall, CA; and Chabrin, a French goat’s milk---and bottles of Rudi Pichler Wösendorfer Hochrain Grüner Veltliner Smaragd 2001, that rare example of a well-aged Grüner at full resolution.  Discussion ensued about the smaragd-ness of the wine, that Austrian combination of fat texture and dryness (Steve declared at least .04 or lower and no one disputed him) that made it tightly structured but soft and pillowy.   It was luxurious and deceptively unctuous…until the fruit, and herbs and minerality registered.  The pairing with the cheeses was perfect, and occasioned great comment; BL had gotten them from the local Oxbow Market cheese shop in consultation with the wine sommelier.  The cheese and wine combination was one of the (many) outstanding moments of the entire meal.

But was that enough?  Certainly not!  BettyLu served up plates of gorgeous chocolate truffles, “American style” (which I was told was encased in dipped chocolate rather than the more French style of cocoa, but what do I know?)  It was so rich, so mouthfilling, that one was a surfeit.

And so we dwindled down to a midnight halt, overfed, over-wined, over-cheesed and over-chocolated, just short of foundering on excess.  In other words, the usual end of Cassoulet at Kesslers.

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